Home > Books/Magazines, Culture, Reviews > Book Review: Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple

Book Review: Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple

By Kaoru Nonomura – Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.

eat sleep sitFor anyone who has ever considered becoming a Zen monk this account is a serious wake up call to the rigours that novitiates at Eiheiji Temple in Fukui Prefecture, one of two main temples of the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism, have to endure.

Founded by Dōgen in 1244 its claim that Dōgen was in residence at Eiheiji tends to outshine its rival Sōjiji, the other main Sōtō school of Zen with which it tends to compete, which is located in Tsurumi near Tōkyō, though in spite of the ‘rivalry’ those undergoing zuise training to complete their training to become a priest must undergo an ichiya no jūshoku (abbot for the night) ceremony at both temples.

The opening section jumps straight in with a very brief description of the author’s departure from what he considers his normal life and a necessarily more lengthy account of his arrival at Eiheiji. Make no bones about it… …if his normal life is a ‘frying pan’ then Eiheiji is the ‘fire’ into which he jumps. More akin to the severe hardships experienced as a new recruit in the Armed Services during basic training his account of the physical and mental brutality meted out by the priests at Eiheiji are shocking and, pardon the pun, like a slap in the face.

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Eiheiji Temple © 663highland

The idea of first stripping a novice of their ego in order for them to be recreated anew to serve a particular purpose is not lost on someone who has undergone basic training in the Military, though even there the physical brutality endured at the time doesn’t compare to the account the author gives of the harshness of the physical punishment meted out to Eiheiji novitiates.

‘Soon after arriving, I realized that the life of an Eiheiji trainee was a never-ending succession of loud angry tongue-lashings and beatings…’

‘…when those who cannot rid themselves of immature or selfish ways fail to follow the rules, severe punishments will be meted out in accordance with temple regulations’.

However, the determined adherence to ritual verges on the ridiculous and a reader could be excused for diagnosing OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). For instance in the early section on ritual behaviour when going to the toilet demands are made that while one hand is kept on a hip the novitiate is to snap the fingers of the other hand three times… …and make no mistake this is not some mystical Buddhist invocation; the point is stressed in this account that there is no mysticism to Zen enlightenment which comes about, according to the book, as a result of the basic carrying out of everyday functions with mindfulness. Though here it seems that everyday functions have been elaborated on with ceremony to such a degree that somehow Sōtō practice seems to undermine Zen’s teachings that in reading read, in walking walk, in sleeping sleep and so on.

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Eiheiji Temple covered walkway © 633highland

If there is a teaching that leaps, without subtlety, from the pages of this account, and many reviewers have expressed their doubts that there is any such message in this book, it is this suchness in the carrying out of everyday functions that is the essence of Zen… …and therein lies the meaning, itself a conundrum for the uninitiated and the difference, when reading this account, between an intellectual understanding as opposed to its ‘grokking’ (to drink in all available aspects of (its) reality – Robert A. Heinlein, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’).

‘Of all the creatures on the planet, we are capable of the most convoluted thought processes, a piece of good fortune that is perhaps also our misfortune’.

The sections which give the reader an insight into the extent to which the austerities are taken and the accompanying brutally are made apparent in ‘Daikan’ and the following section ‘Hunger’. This is not the behaviour that most associate with Buddhism. Make no mistake, this is not the playfully insightful exposition of Japanese Buddhism of the late Janwillem van de Wetering (‘The Empty Mirror’ 1971, and ‘Glimpse of Nothingness’ 1975). This is a very serious and yet insightful commentary couched in a way that it is unrelentingly unapologetic, has no let up, and there is no quarter given to readers of a sensitive nature… …and yet the author at a later point in the book asserts that he ‘felt with renewed conviction how good this life at Eiheiji was.’

It is from the next section, ‘Escape’, that things start to get, not lighter but, less dark. The analogy might be of an Army recruit who having passed off and become a qualified soldier then moves on to trade training. This latter part of the book is more about the ‘meat and potatoes’ of a residency at Eiheiji and more allegorical with its occasional allusions to the passing of time through the measure of the seasons. This, alongside the accounts of the more run of the mill activities at Eiheiji and contact with lay people, make for far less fearful reading. After ‘graduating’ everything else seems to be much more routine. It is only when it comes to his leaving that we really get a glimpse of the bonds that are formed through the joint experience of hardship.

There are a couple of useful follow ups at the end of the book which provide a look back and look forward from the author’s post Eiheiji point of view and an interesting discussion points section for stimulating a perhaps less questing mind.

Mind blowingly brutal and insightful in turns this account is not a trashy exposé. It is an intellectual dissection of the processes involved in becoming a qualified priest of the Sōtō Zen tradition and something that should perhaps be read by anyone considering undergoing entry into an institution like Eiheiji. It is an undoubted tour de force about the goings on there. The saying ‘read it and weep’ really should be taken literally not just for the aspiring Sōtō Zen acolyte but indeed for the reader themselves. As Dante says about hell in his ‘Divine Comedy’, ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’. Not for the faint hearted.

Details:

Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple

Author: Kaoru Nonomura – Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

Pub: Kodansha USA

ISBN: 978-1-56836-565-7

Eiheiji website – https://daihonzan-eiheiji.com/en/ 

A glimpse of Eiheiji – https://youtu.be/lgpgIKoRnTI

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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